Owner-operator truck drivers this week sued one of the largest drayage operators at the Port of New York and New Jersey, claiming the company improperly classified them as independent contractors instead of employees.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in New Jersey Superior Court in Newark, represents a new tack in a Teamsters-backed campaign to classify owner-operators as employees who would be eligible for union representation.
The drivers claim Ironbound Express wrongly deducted workers’ compensation premiums from their pay. “You can’t, as an employee, have your workers’ compensation premiums deducted from your pay,” said David Tykulsker, the drivers’ attorney.
A separate lawsuit challenging drivers’ classification as independent contractors was filed against Ironbound in U.S. District Court in April. The federal lawsuit claims owner-operators who haul containers to and from the port are under company direction and should be considered employees.
“I believe these actions will inspire several lawsuits by other drivers at other trucking companies,” said Fred Potter, director of the Teamsters union’s port division.
Ironbound CEO Frank Borland said the company will contest the lawsuits, which he said challenge industry practices that are long-established and legal.
He said drayage companies are required to ensure that drivers carry workers’ compensation insurance, just as a homeowner must for a contractor. “Some of the drivers carry their own workers’ comp,” he said. “If for some reason they don’t, we’re obligated to provide it for them and pass through the cost.”
Borland also said that unlike employees, owner-operator drivers sometimes drive for other companies and take time off when it suits their schedules. “They can move around as freely as they want to,” he said. “They are as independent as you can get.”
Potter spoke along with Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Newark City Councilman Ronald Rice at a sidewalk rally attended by about 30 drivers and supporters.
Payne praised the drivers for being “willing to stand up here and try to shine a light on a broken port trucking system that allows their hard-earned dollars to be stolen from them.”
Rice said Newark officials would do what they can to apply pressure on behalf of drivers. Efforts to allow local authorities to pre-empt federal regulation of port trucking have been blocked by lawsuits in California and have struggled to gain traction in Congress.
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